The Invisible Line Between Black and White

Vanderbilt professor Daniel Sharfstein discusses the history of the imprecise definition of race in America

The Oberlin Rescuers at Cuyahoga County Jail in 1859. (T.J. Rice. Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

For much of their history, Americans dealt with racial differences by drawing a strict line between white people and black people. But Daniel J. Sharfstein, an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University, notes that even while racial categories were rigidly defined, they were also flexibly understood—and the color line was more porous than it might seem. His new book, The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, traces the experience of three families—the Gibsons, the Spencers and the Walls—beginning in the 17th century. Smithsonian magazine's T.A. Frail spoke with Sharfstein about his new book:

From This Story

People might assume that those who crossed the line from black to white had to cover their tracks pretty thoroughly, which would certainly complicate any research into their backgrounds. But does that assumption hold?

That’s the typical account of passing for white—that it involved wholesale masquerade. But what I found was, plenty of people became recognized as white in areas where their families were well known and had lived for generations, and many could cross the line even when they looked different. Many Southern communities accepted individuals even when they knew those individuals were racially ambiguous—and that happened even while those communities supported slavery, segregation and very hard-line definitions of race.

So how did you find the three families you wrote about?

It was a long process. I began by trying to find as many of these families as I could in the historical record. That involved reading a lot of histories and memoirs, and then moving from there to dozens and dozens of court cases where courts had to determine whether people were black or white, and from there to property records and census records and draft records and newspaper accounts. And I developed a list of dozens, even hundreds of families that I could be writing about, and then narrowed it down. The three families that I chose represent the diversity of this process of crossing the color line and assimilating into white communities. I chose families that lived in different parts of the South that became white at different points in American history and from different social positions.

And how did those families come to know about their ancestry?

For many generations, members of these three families tried to forget that they had ever been African-American—and yet when I traced the families to the present and began contacting the descendants almost everyone I contacted knew about their history. It seems that the secrets of many generations are no match for the Internet. In many families, people would talk about going to the library and seeing that it had, say, a searchable 1850 census. One woman described the experience of typing in her great-grandfather’s name, finding him, and then having to call over the librarian to go through the handwritten enumeration form with her—she had to ask the librarian what “MUL” meant, not knowing it meant he was mulatto, or of mixed race. Every family seemed to have a story like this.

You note that an early 18th-century governor of South Carolina granted the Gibsons, who clearly had African-American ancestry, permission to stay in his colony because “they are not Negroes nor Slaves.” How did the governor reach such a nebulous conclusion?

It shows how fluid understandings of race can be. The Gibsons were descended from some of the first free people of color in Virginia, and like many people of color in the early 18th century they left Virginia and moved to North Carolina and then to South Carolina, where there was more available land and the conditions of the frontier made it friendlier to people of color. But when they arrived in South Carolina there was a lot of anxiety about the presence of this large mixed-race family. And it seems that the governor determined that they were skilled tradesmen, that they had owned land in North Carolina and in Virginia and—I think most important—that they owned slaves. So wealth and privilege trumped race. What really mattered is that the Gibsons were planters.

And why was such flexibility necessary, both then and later?

About T.A. Frail
T.A. Frail

Tom Frail is a senior editor for Smithsonian magazine. He previously worked as a senior editor for the Washington Post and for Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

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